I was discussing Brexit with a group of Wellington lefties last night over a few craft beers* and was dismayed to hear some of them applying the analysis that it was the result of the masses acting out of uneducated racism.
That’s an analysis that’s not just wrong, and a little classist, but – if it is the final analysis social democratic organisations fall back on – extremely dangerous.
With the Brexit referendum the Government foolishly gave the nation the opportunity to raise a middle finger to a political and financial establishment that they have been systematically estranged from. And the nation took that opportunity.
Much as they took a similar opportunity when they voted Corbyn in as Labour leader, and much as their brethren across the Atlantic did in voting up Trump as a candidate and in getting a septuagenarian socialist within cooee of taking the Democratic candidacy.
In a smaller way there was an element of that reaction against the establishment in the election of the last two Labour leaders here in New Zealand – neither of whom were caucus’ first choice.
These are lessons it’s important for the establishment to learn. Particularly the social democratic establishment. Representative democracy fails to maintain legitimacy when it is no longer representative of the people. And in an interconnected world in which the most successful businesses and movements are those that give voice to their customers and members, the insular paternalistic liberalism of late 20th century social democracy no longer provides enough sense of such voice.
The Brexit failure of David Cameron notwithstanding, the right have generally adapted better to this new electoral environment, perhaps because it reflects an atomised and individualised customer environment they have been dealing with through business for some time, perhaps because they take a more cynical and expedient approach to politics than your average wonky lefty.
The danger is that by not taking this lesson on board, and instead dismissing the electorate as ignorant or racist, social democratic organisations in particular would move further away from their traditional base and cede even more ground to the right. Because people can sense when you don’t like them and they don’t support people who don’t like them.
An even more dangerous situation would be these organisations mistaking the symptoms – anti-immigration and other reactionary positions – for the cause and trying to regain currency by triangulating these positions. That would be a serious error – the electorate is extremely clever, not in a delving-into-debate-about-policy-detail way (really, who has the luxury of time for that kind of thing?), but in their ability to recognise when people are being inauthentic. And there are few things as inauthentic as a triangulating social democrat.
A much better reaction to Brexit and to what now appears to be a wave of anti-establishment reaction across western democracies, would be for social democratic political parties to look for ways to reengage with the electorate, and particularly the working class, on progressive issues.
That means seeing the parliamentary left not as leaders of the debate but as an equal part of a broader progressive movement. It means giving more authority to rank and file party members (it’s no coincidence that people joined NZ Labour and UK Labour in droves when they had a meaningful opportunity to make a choice of leader), it means working alongside democratic organisations like unions and NGOs as a parliamentary cog of the progressive movement rather than acting as defacto leaders of it.
Ultimately it means acknowledging that representing people in the 21st century means opening the doors to them, not just “looking after” them from within the inner sanctum. That shift was what Corbyn was signalling when he let the people have his parliamentary questions to Cameron, it’s what Sanders was showing with his mass rallies and campaign advertising focused on other people’s stories, and it’s what has worked best for New Zealand Labour when they have done it.
Even in opposition, social democratic parties and non-parliamentary organisations have incredible opportunities to make change. If there’s one thing they should learn from Brexit it’s that they need to work with the electorate as equals to do it. That’s how you re-engage people, and it’s how you build the trust that allows them to feel you are fit to lead on their behalf.
*there you go, Paddy.